Like the city of Detroit, Ron LeFlore is a survivor

Detroit native Ron LeFlore played six seasons with the Tigers after being scouted at Jackson State Prison while serving a sentence for armed robbery.

Ron LeFlore is now 68 years old and missing one of his legs, thanks to an amputation caused by vascular disease. In many ways, it is remarkable that LeFlore is still alive at all, let alone approaching his 70th birthday. Given his troubles with drugs, his bouts with crime, a stint in prison, and a bevy of health problems, it would have shocked no one if LeFlore had died years ago. Somehow, the former Detroit Tigers star has remained resilient, building a reputation as a survivor who has outlived the odds—time and time again.

LeFlore’s story began in Detroit, where he was born and raised. He grew up on the east side of Detroit, in a poor working class section of the city teeming with crime, his living conditions exacerbated by an alcoholic father who lost his job at a Detroit auto factory and spent little time caring for his family. Given such circumstances, it became easy for the young LeFlore to turn to the temptations of heroin addiction and even drug dealing.

LeFlore’s mother did her best to take care of Ron, but the lack of a father figure hurt badly. LeFlore dropped out of school and turned to robbery. On several occasions, he broke into the local Stroh’s Brewery, stealing beer for himself and his so-called friends. He even resorted to committing armed robbery; he and his friends broke into a local bar called “Dee’s.” LeFlore was holding a rifle used in the break-in. The group was caught, and LeFlore, who was all of 15 at the time, was charged with a felony. For such foolish and reckless behavior, LeFlore received a sentence of five to 15 years at Jackson State Penitentiary.

If there was any consolation to his prison sentence, it was that it afforded him the opportunity to play some organized baseball, albeit within the structure of a state prison. LeFlore’s ballplaying skills became so evident that one of his fellow inmates, a man who knew Tigers manager Billy Martin, convinced the Detroit skipper to come to the prison and take a look at the young outfielder. Martin came away duly impressed and worked out an arrangement for LeFlore to be paroled for one day, so that could participate in a tryout camp in front of Tigers coaches and executives.

On paper, it might have seemed like the longest of long shots, like something out of a Disney movie. Yet, the Tigers liked what they saw from LeFlore, who had sprinter’s speed, a quick bat, and some power. Based on that one-day tryout, the Tigers offered LeFlore a minor league contract—immediately upon his release from Jackson.

The offer of a deal served two purposes, allowing LeFlore to meet the conditions of a fulltime parole from prison and jumpstarting his professional career in baseball. In July of 1973, the 25-year-old LeFlore reported to Clinton of the Class-A Midwest League, where he hit a respectable .277 and showed off his blazing footspeed.

The following year, LeFlore broke through while playing for Lakeland, a higher classification team in Single-A ball. With a .331 batting average and 45 steals, it became obvious that LeFlore was not just making a great story for himself, but was also establishing a reputation as a legitimate prospect. Before season’s end, the Tigers promoted him all the way to Triple-A Evansville, where he played nine games. LeFlore hit only .235 in his short cameo at Triple-A, but a broken hand suffered by veteran center fielder Mickey Stanley left the Tigers shorthanded in the outfield. Needing a center fielder desperately, the Tigers couldn’t resist the temptation of calling LeFlore up to the big leagues.

On August 1, 1974, the 26-year-old LeFlore made his rather unlikely major league debut. He struck out three times in the game, but then started to settle in. Playing in 59 games as a rookie, LeFlore struggled to make basic plays in center field and didn’t walk much or show much power, but did bat .263 with 23 stolen bases. Given his late start in baseball and his severe lack of experience at the professional level, even those modest numbers represented an incredible level of success.

Center fielder Ron LeFlore was an All-Star for the Detroit Tigers in 1976.

In 1975, the Tigers gave LeFlore a chance to make the Opening Day roster. He didn’t disappoint, earning a spot as a part-time center fielder, a job that he initially shared with Stanley. LeFlore’s 1975 campaign turned out to be a tale of two seasons. Over the first half, LeFlore played well, hitting .289 with seven home runs and 25 stolen bases. After the All-Star break, LeFlore fell into a deep slump, but while his hitting fell off, LeFlore showed major improvement in handling the defensive demands of center field.

The 1975 season represented a mixed bag for the young outfielder, but 1976 turned out to be a breakout year. LeFlore started the season by compiling a 30-game hitting streak. He played so well in April, May, and June that he became one of three Tigers to earn berths on the American League All-Star team. LeFlore’s hitting became even more impressive in light of the tragedy that he dealt with that spring and early summer; his brother Gerald was murdered, the direct result of his involvement with drugs and a Detroit gang.

For the season, LeFlore hit .316 and stole 58 bases, the latter figure placing him second among American League basestealers. LeFlore wasn’t just an unlikely major leaguer; he had officially become a star.

LeFlore would play even better in 1977, as he showed newfound power at the plate. Batting leadoff, he not only hit 16 home runs, but also compiled an OPS of .838, by far the best mark of his career. Although he didn’t make the All-Star team, he did finish 20th in the American League’s MVP voting, a far better indication of his value to the franchise. For his efforts, the organization named LeFlore “Tiger of the Year.”

In 1978, LeFlore continued to perform at a high level. He batted .297 with 12 home runs and led the league with 68 stolen bases and 126 runs scored. He also showed increased patience at bat, where he drew a career-high 65 walks. For a second straight year, LeFlore received consideration in the MVP voting, finishing 16th. He also earned some acclaim when the television movie, One In A Million, made its debut on network television. The film, starring a young LeVar Burton as LeFlore, recounted the unlikely story that saw him make the remarkable transition from prison inmate to major league star.

LeFlore continued to hit and run well in 1979, maintaining his status as an impact player—at least on the field. He batted an even .300, stole 78 bases, and scored 110 runs. Off the field, however, LeFlore created concerns for Tiger management. He was using drugs again, a reminder of the problems that he had endured with heroin use during his youthful days in Detroit. He also began associating with people of questionable influence, some of whom he invited into the Tigers’ clubhouse. Sparky Anderson, who took over the managerial helm in the middle of 1979, did not like what he saw.

Anderson and the Tigers’ front office became so concerned about LeFlore’s behavior that they decided to make a change. At the 1979 winter meetings, general manager Jim Campbell completed an unpopular trade, sending LeFlore to the Montreal Expos for talented but relatively unproven left-hander Dan Schatzeder. Tigers fans, along with the media, criticized the deal, which seemed lopsided in favor of the Expos. Was that the best that the Tigers could do for LeFlore, a star outfielder and a two-time honorable mention in the MVP race?

While the Tigers might have extracted more for LeFlore, they were correct in realizing that their onetime phenom did not have a long career ahead of him. In fact, LeFlore would play only three more seasons. After a productive but drug-filled year with the Expos, LeFlore signed a free agent contract with the Chicago White Sox. He flopped badly in the Windy City, showcasing a bad attitude that rankled manager Tony La Russa and his coaching staff. LeFlore, now in his early thirties, played poorly, and also continued to abuse drugs.

In the spring of 1983, after only two seasons in Chicago, the White Sox released LeFlore. With his reputation in tatters, no one came calling, forcing LeFlore to step aside and retire.

LeFlore tried to remain in baseball through unconventional means—by becoming an umpire. He attended the Joe Brinkman Umpire School (led by the major league umpire of the same name), but failed to achieve the necessary grade needed to earn a minor league umpiring assignment. So LeFlore abandoned umpiring and left the game entirely. More than a decade later, he became a manager in independent minor league ball, but could never draw interest from a team in Organized Ball.

Over the past 15 years, LeFlore has encountered a series of hardships. He has been charged with possession of a controlled substance, failed to make child support payments, suffered the loss of an infant daughter to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and endured the 2011 amputation of his right leg because of a lifelong addiction to smoking. During a visit to visit to Cooperstown in 2005 for the annual Hall of Fame Game, LeFlore tried to secure a spot in the weekend program schedule but was politely refused. His past was still hanging around his neck.

For LeFlore, his recent struggles represent a far cry from his glory days as a Tiger. From 1975 to 1979, LeFlore found himself at the top of the game’s pecking order, a valuable and popular player in Detroit. Sadly, those days are gone. We can only hope that LeFlore can find some good fortune, and a level of redemption in the near future. After all, he is a survivor. It’s what he seems to do best.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.